Come next 2 November, for only the 55th time in its history, the United States of America will choose a President and a Vice-President by election. But who will be the finalists, as it were, for this prize of what has become the most powerful political office on the globe? The process by which the candidates in the General Presidential Election will be nominated will largely determine the answer to this question. In this piece, I will trace the origin and development of a nominating process which can be both amazing and frustrating to the average American citizen trying his or her best to understand it.
Despite the habit of the mainstream news media of treating the nomination process as a series of blockbuster heavyweight bouts with names such as "Super Tuesday", the object of the game of winning the nomination in one of the two major parties is that of collecting the pledges from a majority of the delegates to the parties' National Conventions held during the summer before the General Election. There are only three methods used at present to allocate delegates to presidential contenders: the "Caucus/Convention", what is currently referred to as the "Presidential Primary" or some combination of the two. (For more details on the various methods which are usually used in the present day to allocate National Convention delegates, please see the "Glossary" page on this website.)
The Caucus/Convention is the oldest of these, although it is only used nowadays in a relative handful of states and territories/dependencies; yet, while it does remain the most aged method of choosing National Convention delegates, it is not the original way the nascent parties of the very late 18th century going into the early 19th nominated their candidates for President and Vice-President. The original method of political parties nominating such candidates was through the practice of the legislative caucus, which itself grew out of the concept of filling vacancies in legislative bodies by co-optation (that is, the choosing of a person to fill the vacancy by vote of all the remaining members of that body): an ancient practice used in the election of aldermen to serve on Council in the Boroughs of merry old England which was also utilized in the early development of the Municipality in what became the United States.
The term "caucus" itself may also be rather ancient, as the Latin word caucus refers to a drinking vessel: the earliest informal local political clubs- particularly in New England, where local politics, thanks to the Town Meeting, was less aristocratic than elsewhere along the Colonial Atlantic Seaboard- were, indeed, often an outgrowth of the friendly camaraderie, including toasting one's fellows with the alcoholic beverage "flip", among persons sharing the same trade or vocation; in fact, one such club- which regularly endorsed candidates for local town office (such as selectman) before the annual Town Meeting was scheduled to convene in Boston- was specifically named the Caucus Club (future patriot leader and later U.S. President John Adams, in a 1763 diary entry, decries the undue influence this Caucus Club's gatherings regularly had over the elections at Town Meeting). There is also the possibility that the term "caucus" may very well have been derived from the Algonquin Native American Indian word "kaw-kaw-wass" (especially as it does not appear to have been used back in Britain to describe the procedure of co-optation as described above- what later would have been referred to as a legislative caucus), meaning to talk informally amongst one's fellows as opposed to a more formal conference of persons with some authority (Algonquin, "paw-we-wass"- which came into English as the word "pow-wow": in a sense, the Caucus Club was holding a white man's "kaw-kaw-wass", while the subsequent Town Meeting was the white man's "paw-we-wass").
In the legislative caucus, the members of a given political party- what, at the time, would have been called a "faction"- serving in a legislative body would meet more or less informally to decide who would represent that faction/party in the next elections for executive office(s): originally, it was used where an executive officer was solely the choice of the legislative body (as where the aldermen would alone elect the Mayor of a city), but- by the time of the American Revolution, when the Colonies first became "free and independent States"- it came to be used in nominating candidates for executive offices to be voted on by the People (most notably, that of Governor of a State) who would henceforth run in the General Election under the banner of that faction or party within the Legislature which had nominated them.
The Framers of the new United States Constitution of 1787, however, would have preferred to have had nothing to do with this concept of faction and, as a result, the issue of political parties was not even considered in the course of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In part this was certainly due to a revulsion against the growing influence of faction and party on state and local politics on the part of at least some of the Framers, but more likely it can be largely attributed to the fact that these men- while brought to the forefront of politics in their own States as, in many cases, active members of factions/parties back home- honestly believed they were creating, in the "more perfect Union" of States their Constitution would soon govern, a hitherto unknown type of political entity which could somehow, in its novelty, prevent this virus of faction from spreading into the new Federal system they were creating by way of the artificial procedures of national election of the Chief Executive they had purposely built into their document. Nevertheless, it still seems rather surprising that men who, for the most part, were well-versed in the political wars of their respective Revolutionary War era States apparently did not take into account even the possibility that their new bicameral Congress might very well develop factions if not full-fledged political parties.
In the original Constitutional framework, the Electoral College itself was to be the presidential nominating body- the equivalent of today's National Conventions. Each Elector was to choose two men for President without having any idea as to how his individual ballot would affect the ultimate cumulative vote of the Electors as a whole. With the proviso that no more than one of the Elector's two choices could be from the same State as the Elector himself, the assumption was that the Elector's first choice would, most likely, be some "favorite son" from the Elector's own home state while his second choice would be forced to be some other notable from perhaps the same region but, by constitutional edict, from a different state. Clearly, the Framers considered it more than likely that the second choices of various Electors would ultimately determine the five "nominees" for the office from whom the House of Representatives, voting by State not as individuals, would pick the next President (for it is doubtful any of them entertained the notion that- except in the case of George Washington- the Electoral College would ever produce a majority of the electoral vote for any of the Electors' choices for President); it is equally as clear that the Framers also believed that they had come up with a system that would keep faction/party from becoming a factor in the election of a President. They, of course, were very wrong.
The Electoral College system they devised was ingenious, but only in its theory. It was flawed in practice, however, because it denied the fact that human nature would inherently bring the same kinds of factions and parties into National politics that had already permeated State politics. When, in addition, one takes into account that the office of President was devised for one man, George Washington, who was the consensus choice to be the Nation's first Chief Executive and that the whole "Electoral College nominating/House of Representatives electing Presidents" idea was really and solely designed to provide for the election of Presidents only once Washington had left office, it is evident that the original purpose of the Electoral College was never realized. By the first election after Washington (that of 1796), factions had already emerged: one in support of John Adams, the other in support of Thomas Jefferson; all the Adams Electors voted the Bay Stater as their first choice for President while all the Jeffersonians chose the Virginian first with the result that, for the first (and, so far, only) time, the President and Vice-President would represent opposing parties.
The following election (1800), an Adams-Jefferson rematch, provided an even worse scenario when all the Jeffersonians voted for the same first AND second choices (Aaron Burr being number 2 behind Jefferson), creating an tie between the two men which ended up throwing the Presidential Election into a lame duck House of Representatives controlled by Adams supporters who despised both Jefferson AND Burr. A combination of luck, political skill and, ultimately, compromise narrowly avoided the election of a President (Aaron Burr) who clearly was not the consensus choice of even the supporters of Jefferson; the right person (in terms of the consensus National political situation of the Winter of 1801) had only become President of the United States by a hair's breadth!
This unforeseen complication in the system so carefully devised by the Framers less than a decade and a half earlier caused by the development of National factions or parties led to the 12th Amendment to the Framers' own document; henceforth, beginning with the Election of 1804, the Electors would vote separately for President and Vice-President. Along with this significant change in the General Election procedure, there was now a need for a device for nominating the two men who would make up the "presidential ticket" and carry the banner of the faction or party into the contest. Thus, the legislative caucus described above, for the first time, went national. The ticket of a faction or party would be named by the members of Congress who belonged to that faction or party: the modern American political party was born and, with it, the specter of the presidential candidate's "running mate" who would somehow "balance" (ideologically, geographically, etc.) that party's presidential ticket emerged.
Three things soon doomed this new "Congressional Caucus": first, the decline, decay and death of one of the two major national parties which had emerged in the wake of the 12th Amendment's changes to the system of Presidential Election (in this case, the Federalists: the lineal descendants of those who had supported Adams over Jefferson in both 1796 and 1800); second, the realization that America was less a Nation in the European sense of the term (particularly as immigration to America began to increase and the frontier "out West" [wherever "the West" happened to be at a given period of time] became more and more of a political force with which to be reckoned as the 19th Century went along) than a Federation of regions made up of groups of States; and, finally and perhaps most importantly, the crashing and breaking waves of what came to be called the "Jacksonian Revolution" (named for its champion, Andrew Jackson, unsuccessful presidential contender in the Election of 1824- the only other one thrown into the House of Representatives- and ultimately elected President in 1828 and re-elected in 1832) which demanded the political participation of greater numbers of the masses- the "common man" over and against men of wealth and property.
The first item of the three in the previous paragraph meant that the nomination of candidates for President and Vice-President by a cabal of Democratic-Republican (as the former Jeffersonians had come to be called) members of Congress had become tantamount to election; the second meant that the centralized Congressional Caucus would have to give way to a system of nomination that would better reflect the presidential preferences of various, usually regionally based, factions within the one remaining political party; while the third meant that "King Caucus" itself would surely be seen as a denial of the "Voice of the People" in the nominating process.
The first Jacksonian attempt to do an end run around "King Caucus" was what had, indeed, led to the Election of 1824 being thrown into the House in the first place: State Legislatures would name potential contenders for the nomination of the sole Democratic-Republican Party from whom, or so it was thought, the Electors could then make their choices for President and Vice-President; as a result, none of the four main contenders for the nomination gained a majority in the Electoral College. While this was the closest the presidential election process would ever come to the original vision of the Framers of the Constitution, the changes in that process wrought two decades earlier by the 12th Amendment had already made that original vision highly undesirable. Fortunately, there was another way for the parties to nominate their presidential and vice-presidential candidates: that of the Caucus/Convention system.
To understand the origins of the Caucus/Convention system, we have only to go once again back to the Caucus Club and similar informal political clubs of Colonial era Boston already alluded to earlier: within a short time, largely due to the controversies involving the Stamp Act of 1765, these clubs quickly evolved into the "mass meeting" of "concerned citizens". The "mass meeting" (to which the term "caucus" may have also been applied) reached its heyday in New England during the Revolution, where they were used to smooth over differences of opinion within the patriot cause and keep the Sons of Liberty united as a political force. The defects of the "mass meeting" or "caucus" (flaws which remain with us still in those states or other jurisdictions that still use them to begin the National Convention delegate selection process) is in their inability to be a truly representative gathering, except in a particularly homogenous community, so rare in America today; this is why their most effective use today is as an alternative to a primary election (just as voters may choose to vote or not vote in a presidential primary, they might also choose to attend or not attend a local caucus- so their lack of representativeness is less of a problem).
The County Convention, meanwhile, also originated in New England- only after the Revolution. The Jeffersonians were so outnumbered by pro-Adams Federalists in the legislatures of the New England states that using the legislative caucus was impractical: instead, a County Convention (really a countywide caucus of interested Jeffersonians, similar to the County Caucuses/Conventions still used out in Wyoming and Idaho for National Convention delegate selection) would endorse (much in the way the Caucus Club of Boston had once endorsed town office candidates) candidates for state office from which the few Jeffersonian legislators could choose a formal candidate (thereby making sure the Jeffersonian candidates would truly reflect the "will of the People", important to the Jeffersonian faction as the party of the masses over against the aristocratic Federalists). The system rapidly spread into the Mid-Atlantic region and had its greatest heyday in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware during the first two decades of the 19th Century.
What was needed was a formal marriage between the semi-formal "mass meeting" or "caucus" and the more formal "County Convention". There were many fits and starts (as early as the 1790's, mass meetings choosing representatives to county conventions were seen in New York State- but these were only for limited purposes involving a particular issue or candidate) until the 1820's, when the politicians of Crawford County, Pennsylvania got the idea that "mass meetings" of all the interested supporters of a political party in each of the county's townships could choose "delegates" to the County Convention (already to be held to endorse the party's candidates for state office) which would, in turn, nominate the party's candidates to the elective offices at the county level.
Within a very short period of time, this concept of a County Convention made up of delegates representing the county's precincts spread not only across the length and breadth of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania but also into other states- Northern as well as Southern- as well. This Caucus/County Convention system proved to become, over time, rather important in the antebellum South (except in South Carolina, which had Districts in lieu of Counties until Reconstruction- Districts which were treated as mere administrative subdivisions of the State without, unlike in the rest of the South, an active and autonomous local government). Here, the Caucus/Convention system became, more or less, a Southern variant of the New England Town Meeting which was, by the 1820's (and in its diluted Mid-Atlantic form as the Township Meeting), spreading westward into the northern tier of those states which conveyed land within the system of six mile square Townships into which the newly admitted Public Domain states west of the Appalachian chain had been divided.
The Town(ship) Meeting was impractical as a method of local government in the South, which had Counties largely made up of family-owned plantations and other large landholdings virtually unknown in New England and the Mid-Atlantic (with the possible exception of the Patroon system of landlord/tenancy in New York State's Hudson Valley); even so, Thomas Jefferson himself, while- as a Virginian- a son of the South, had long greatly admired the democratic spirit of the New England Town and its lineal descendants in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions. In addition, a number of Southern Jeffersonians had long seen, in the Town(ship) Meeting, something which could be used for purposes more limited than that of local governance, such as those purposes associated with Politics and readily adapted the "mass meeting" (a term which became more prevalent in the South than "caucus") of interested voters to the nongovernmental "civil districts" into which the Southern counties were subdivided and which were already doing double duty as a "political precinct" in the South during the period of "King Caucus". Adding the County Convention made up of delegates chosen at these local "mass meetings" in a region of the country in which the County was THE local government was no great stretch of the political imagination.
Soon enough, these County Conventions were choosing the county's delegates to a party's State Convention which supplanted the state's legislative caucus as a method of nominating candidates for statewide office. By 1832, these State Conventions were choosing delegates to National Conventions of the parties at which the party's candidates for President and Vice-President were to be nominated.
The new system had come none too soon: the Democratic-Republican Party had split in two as a result of the animosity between the John Quincy Adams supporters (the National Republicans) and the Jacksonians; the National Republicans soon evolved into the Whigs, while the Jacksonians became the Democrats and the concept of these National Conventions would survive the demise of the Whigs in the wake of the Slavery issue and the emergence of the new Republican Party in its place as America headed toward the internecine bloodbath known as the Civil War. Insofar as the National Conventions of the two major parties are still concerned, the system which emerged out of a small Pennsylvania county in the early 19th Century is- except for the general use of the term "caucus" for the first tier instead of "mass meeting"- the process used in those states still using the Caucus/Convention system to eventually choose its delegates to the National Conventions; the only significant difference at all is that the process is now subject to state regulation and political party oversight (if not at the national level, as with the Democratic Party since the 1970's- at least at the state level, as it still is within the GOP).
The evils of the original form of Caucus/Convention, before the advent of state regulation/party oversight in the 20th Century, would become more apparent in time, however: the local caucus/mass meeting soon became the breeding ground of the "boss" of the local party "machine" and all the corruption that these new concepts could engender. This new system soon proved to be tailor-made for the machine and its boss, as the process was completely unregulated by law (political parties, at the time, being viewed as, more or less, private "voluntary associations" of "concerned citizens") and the local caucus/mass meeting, easily manipulated by a particularly powerful political boss and his minions through such devices, was the body which elected the local party committee, the lowest level of political party organization in America, and which in turn elected- or at least provided the precinct's members of- the county, state and, ultimately, the national party committee.
An ambitious boss might, should his ward or election precinct or township provide a larger share of his party's vote in a local election, come to control the party apparatus of an entire city or county; if that city or county was dominated by the voters who regularly supported his party, the boss might come to have a major influence upon the decisions of the officeholders in that city or county. If, in addition, that city or county provided a much more than average percentage of the party's vote in statewide elections, that same ambitious boss might come to dominate the state party and, with it, the elected state officers of that party- even a state's Governor! Furthermore, should his state provide a large number of Electoral Votes (especially once the Electoral College became "winner-take-all", in which the presidential candidate with the highest number of votes- regardless of his percentage of that vote- would be given all a state's Electors) which regularly would find their way into the column of his party's presidential candidates, the now-state party boss might well find himself elevated to the status of "kingmaker", actually choosing Presidents in the proverbial "smoke-filled room" during a deadlocked National Convention; this kingmaker was now a far cry from the "big fish in a small pond" he had once been at some local caucus many years- and election cycles- earlier.
The first attempts to remedy this were made long after the Civil War by the reform movement that came to be known as Populism. Populists, regardless of party, began to push for state regulation of the Caucus/Convention system- especially the local caucus, which was now referred to as the "primary" in order to emphasize the idea that this body was the primary- that is, the first- step in the process by which officeholders at all levels of government would eventually be elected. State regulation soon spread all across the country, yet the political machine survived- particularly in America's cities now teeming with even more immigrants from even more (and more disparate) nations and cultures.
After all, while the local caucus or "primary" was, in theory, still a meeting open to all party supporters, an entrenched and savvy boss might still be able to grant political favors to those who spoke on behalf of his "slate" of contenders for the party's nominations to office and withhold them from those who dared to oppose him. Even where such outright intimidation of party voters unfriendly to the boss was not used, devices such as- to take just one example- the "snap primary", in which the local committee authorized a local caucus to begin as soon as the local committee adjourned- well before the party voters among the local citizenry could be informed that the caucus was even taking place, were used to keep the candidates of the party machine on the General Election ballot and those of reformers off it. Wherever the boss's party was predominant over the other, the boss as described in the previous paragraph remained quite powerful even in the face of state regulation, so long as he stayed out of the purview of muckraking journalists or away from the watchful eyes of the other party's state Attorney General (one has to assume the local prosecutor would, often as not, already be in the boss's pocket; if the boss could elect the next Attorney General, so much the better!).
The next wave of reformers- the Progressives of the turn of the last century (as I now have to be so careful to write in the wake of the dawn of a new Millennium)- realized that the only effective means of breaking the power of the party boss was to allow the individual party voter to express his or her preference for contenders for a party's nomination to office by secret ballot in a state-run "primary" election. Thus was born the concept of the "direct primary" (as opposed to the "indirect primary" which was simply the local caucus, as usual, nominating party candidates at different levels of government through delegates to conventions at higher tiers), which was rather quickly adopted- in a vast majority of states- for nominations for state, county and local office.
Nevertheless, well past the mid-20th Century, most states would continue to use the Caucus/Convention system, with its inherent defects despite state regulation, to choose its delegates to the party National Conventions which would nominate a party's candidates for President and Vice-President, even long after abandoning state and local nominations to the direct primary election. Those of you reading this can look elsewhere on "The Green Papers" and navigate other links on this website for further information as to the developments of National Convention delegate selection process through the 20th Century and its gradual movement, particularly over the last more than a quarter century, away from the Caucus/Convention and more toward use of the Presidential Primary to determine which presidential contenders are pledged how many National Convention delegates.
Created Tue 23 Nov 1999. Modified .